Santa Barbara: Exploring surf and turf along America's Riviera

August 7, 2017

Billy Kissel, a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, runs the tasting room at Roblar Winery & Vineyards in Santa Ynez. He is known for his colorful descriptions of the wine.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — For someone with only one cup of coffee in her system and a steep, craggy trail run into Rattlesnake Canyon looming, it was not the best way to greet the morning.

"Keep an eye out for loose rocks," a pair of passing hikers called out as I rounded a turn on the switchback path. "Oh, and rattlesnakes!" they added with a nonchalant air, as they scrambled past me on their way back to their car.

Did they say snakes? Ugh. So much for a relaxing run to clear my head.

It was prescient advice. Keeping an eye out for the unexpected ended up being a theme on our vacation in this Mediterranean-style city on California’s central coast. Some like to call Santa Barbara the American Riviera because of its blue-skied, sandy-beached similarity to France’s white-washed Cote d’Azur. And indeed, it’s about as drop-dead gorgeous as a city can be with its picturesque sea of red-tiled roofs nestled between the rugged, chaparral-covered Santa Ynez Mountains and the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean.

But I came to think of Santa Barbara as how Forrest Gump’s mother viewed a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. For example:

Who expects to step out of their car at a winery and run into a … peacock? That was our welcome at Pence Ranch, a 200-acre working ranch and estate vineyard in nearby Buellton that’s making a name for itself with its exquisite pinot noirs and chardonnays.

In a region first occupied by the Chumash Indians and later settled by the Spanish, who knew it’d really be all about the Danish in the village of Solvang? Along with four windmills and half-timbered houses, its charm lies in its signature statues of Hans Christian Anderson and a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. It’s also a great place to find cuckoo clocks and aebleskiver, traditional Danish apple pancakes.

And sure, this "Sideways" country has more wineries and tasting rooms within easy driving distance than you could possibly visit in a week, let alone a month or year. But there’s an emerging craft beer scene, too, along with more than a few restaurants serving some of the best produce and seafood on either coast, both in and out of its hip and funky Funk Zone.

I’d gotten my husband to the West Coast because of a destination half-marathon that just happened to have the word "wine" in the title. That, and the fact that our oldest friends had moved there a year ago and were happy to host us in their daughter’s bedroom. Fred is always posting Instagrams of their bucolic deck overlooking the city, so I’d assumed after the race (on Day 2) we’d spend the week lazing about, drinking wine and eventually becoming bored. Santa Barbara, after all, offered neither the craziness of Los Angeles nor cosmopolitan glamour of San Francisco. Boy was I wrong.

It was one of those vacations where we ended up needing a vacation when we arrived home nine days later. Once we got started, we never stopped.

We were there during what locals call the "May Gray" (better, presumably, than the "June Gloom"). Yet the weather proved so unrelentingly perfect, with warm, sunny days and cool evenings, that the last thing we (read: I) wanted to do was sit around. More than once we went hiking in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and we also ran and rode a surrey bike (harder than it seems) along oceanside Cabrillo Boulevard.

Breaking with tradition, we also visited several of the city’s 20-plus museums, including its lush botanic garden, museum of natural history and the new MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration (plus) Innovation, which offers kids interactive learning experiences and their parents one of the best rooftop views of the city. It’d be a perfect spot for happy hours!

We’d so enjoyed the scenic backroad drive over the Santa Ynez Mountains on The San Marcos Pass Road (Route 154) to Solvang for my race, that we did it again one afternoon. Only this time we were destined for Los Olivos, a small and picture-perfect town full of tasting rooms, arty boutiques and farm-to-table restaurants. Home to a jazz and olive festival every June, it has one of the coolest general stores (housed in one of California’s first gas stations) and great bike trails.

Of course we toured the Old Mission of Santa Barbara, founded in 1786 by Spanish Franciscan missionaries and home to a beautiful church, historic cemetery and mausoleum and museum of historical art and artifacts. Given its location opposite the awesome Handlebar Coffee Roasters (with its amazing lattes and pastries), I also got my husband to amble with me through El Presidio State Historic Park. It was a military outpost dating to 1782 that played a vital role in Spain’s occupation of Alta California and is the city’s oldest building.

We had a bit more fun taking an elevator to the top of the grand, Spanish Colonial Revival courthouse, the showpiece of which is not its gorgeous hand-painted ceilings and giant murals but the observation deck in the clock tower that offers a spectacular panorama of the city, mountains and harbor. Though in an ironic twist, we ended up getting a parking ticket for parking in front of a library book dropoff.

Vacationing without children, we decided to splurge one night on dinner at Belmond El Encanto in the windy, steep Riviera neighborhood. It’s the perfect place to watch a golden-orange sun melt into the horizon and the food, served under the stars on a terrace, was perfection. We also sipped cocktails at sunset on the terrace of the even more glamorous, five-star Four Seasons resort, where rooms start at $1,000 and we hoped to spy a movie star or two.

Our hunt for celebrities also came up empty at The Honor Bar in the tony seaside community of Montecito, where actor Rob Lowe is said to hang out. No Oprah or Ellen Degeneres either, who both own houses there.

Cheaper eats included the $1.75 tacos at Mony’s and a 10 a.m. bowl of "famous" pea soup at Andersen’s Pea Soup in Buellton on our way to Pence Ranch. Guess which one we enjoyed more.

And then there was the wine sampled in tasting rooms that ranged from sophisticated and elegant, such as Pence Ranch’s open-air Canyon Room in the Santa Rita hills, where a sun sail keeps the afternoon sun at bay, to the more lively Roblar Winery in Santa Ynez. That’s where ex-Los Angeles investigative reporter-turned tasting room manager Billy Kissel regales customers with sometimes-racy "grape tales" meant to entertain as much as educate. The winery has a full kitchen if you plan on making an evening of it, and you also can picnic on the grass.

Santa Barbara offered so much — bike and hiking trails for the body, historic missions and military outposts for the mind, and well, one beautiful winery after another for the nerves — that the only thing hard about this trip was the drive back down to L.A. to catch our flight home.

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IF YOU GO: SANTA BARBARA

Where to stay: We snagged a spare bedroom in our friends’ hillside house in the Riviera section of town. But for those who aren’t as fortunate there are countless options in all price ranges. Less-expensive chain hotels include Holiday Inn Express, Best Western and Quality Inn. Upscale beachfront options include the Santa Barbara Inn, Fess Parker DoubleTree and Hotel Milo. For those with even deeper pockets, it doesn’t get more luxurious (or expensive) than the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, where Meryl Streep filmed scenes from "It’s Complicated." With suites and bungalows, the glamorous hillside Belmond El Encanto offers gorgeous views of the city. And when it opens in September, the luxury Hotel Californian adjacent to the city’s Funk Zone is supposed to be fantastic.

Food and drink: What are you hungry for? If it’s California cuisine, you’re in luck because fresh, innovative dishes that shine with local produce rule this town. In fact, we only had one disappointing meal in eight days (at a chain pizza parlor). Restaurants not to be missed include The Lark in the up-and-coming Funk Zone (the best salad of salanova lettuces, like ever); Milk & Honey, 30 W. Anapamu St. (tapas); Yellow Belly, 2611 De La Vina St. (burgers and craft beer); Mony’s Mexican, 217 Anacapa St (awesome street tacos); Los Agaves, 2911 De La Vina St (upscale Mexican); and Helena Avenue Bakery, 131 Anacapa St., for breakfast sandwiches, salads, seasonal soups, cheese boards and charcuterie at communal wooden tables. We also had one super-romantic "splurge" meal at Belmont El Encante’s terrace restaurant as the sun was setting. The seared ahi tuna, served on heirloom tomatoes, alone was worth the price of admission.

Hate to make decisions or reservations? Eat This, Shoot That! offers both food tours of the Funk Zone ($89) and wine tours through the Presidio neighborhood ($99) that include tips on how to take great pictures on your smartphone’s camera app. Or, take a self-guided tour of the 28 tasting rooms on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. A tasting usually costs around $15, and you also can purchase a trail membership ($150) that gets you a one-time free tasting at each Trail winery, plus 10 percent off the day’s purchases.

Activities: Santa Barbara caters to both active types and lazybones who’d rather just relax. Enjoy everything from hiking in the Santa Ynez Mountains and surfing in the Pacific to stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking in the harbor. You also can rent bikes, take a trolley tour, practice yoga in a salt cave and check out the fresh fish hauled in each Saturday at the Fisherman’s Market on Stearns Wharf. Santa Barbara also has 10 walkable blocks of shopping, oceanfront golf courses and one of the country’s best small zoos.

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